Fall camp officially starts for the Wisconsin Badgers this week, as they kickoff a 2018 campaign that has some considerable hype from the outside looking in.
Some position groups—like quarterback, running back, wide receiver, inside linebacker— already have starters lined up and ready (and for wide receiver and inside linebacker, even a two-deep potentially set up to roll).
However, there are some positions up for grabs heading into fall camp and towards the Aug. 31 season opener at Camp Randall Stadium against Western Kentucky.
We asked our group of writers about the position battle that they’re most interested in heading into fall camp.
Jake Kocorowski: I’m keeping my eyes on who emerges along the defensive line—particularly at end. If Isaiahh Loudermilk isn’t ready for the season opener, that would likely make Aaron Vopal and either Kraig Howe, David Pfaff or Keldric Preston the starting ends. Can a true freshman like Isaiah Mullens, who has the size (6’4, 283 pounds) for the position, get ahead of the learning curve and find reps? Now, Wisconsin may be able to go through non-conference play without many eye-opening blemishes depending upon the offensive styles of Western Kentucky, New Mexico and BYU, but this position group will need to step up come Big Ten action.
Andrew Rosin: I want to see how tight end shakes out. Before Zander Neuville got hurt, he was running second behind Troy Fumagalli last season. He’s definitely got the highest floor, and considering that the Badgers love to run multiple tight ends, he’s going to get the most playing time. And as the returning leading receiver at the position, he could easily usurp Kyle Penniston.
That’s not to say that Penniston is a slouch. There’s no reason to believe that the physical gifts that led him to being a hyped tight end coming in just up and disappeared. He’s developed into a viable red zone target, and he has the ability to be a dangerous seam splitter.
Neither one is so entrenched that a redshirt freshman can’t overtake them. Maybe one who went to the The Opening Finals. Maybe one who was the offensive scout team player of the year.during that redshirt season. And then he has a sparkling run through spring practice. Luckily for Bucky, they have a tight end that checks all those boxes in Jake Ferguson.
Owen Riese: I’m going to stick with what I know and say left tackle. While it may not have repercussions as to the overall success of the offense, it will be interesting to watch thoughout camp who begins to get the upper hand. Cole Van Lanen, Patrick Kasl and Jon Dietzen have all been listed as candidates in late June by Joe Rudolph, and it will be interesting to see how the battle shakes out and what impact it has on the rest of the offensive line depth chart.
If Kasl were to win the job, who would move to be the backup right tackle? Does Dietzen move back inside to re-strengthen the interior depth that’s been hit by the losses of Brett Connors (no longer in the program) and Kayden Lyles (moved to nose tackle)?
Ryan Mellenthin: The position group that intrigues me the most is the defensive backfield. Last season, Wisconsin ranked first in the nation in team passing efficiency defense last season (96.39) and fifth in passing yards allowed per game (163.6).
Entering 2018, UW is down three of their four starters from last season. Filling the void left by Nick Nelson and Derrick Tindal is going to be a tall task, but Wisconsin has a talented young crop of corners to step in. They should be led by redshirt sophomore Dontye Carriere-Williams, who spent most of 2017 as the third corner in Wisconsin’s nickel sub package. Fellow sophomores Madison Cone and Caesar Williams should also garner playing time as well.
A talented freshman crop will also contend for time, including Faion Hicks. The second-year player redshirted last season, and a year under Jim Leonhard’s wing should help him be a prime replacement. Leonhard will also could have two true freshman battling for playing time, in Donte Burton and a player with possibly the best name on the team, Rachad Wildgoose. All-in-all, Wisconsin has a talented group of corners, which should help Camp Randall Stadium be a “no fly zone” when the opposition has the ball.
Wisconsin’s last line of defense on the back end will also be a talented group, led by D’Cota Dixon, Wisconsin’s only returning starter in the defensive backfield. A slew of others will be in the running to take the spot vacated by Natrell Jamerson, including sophomores Eric Burrell and Patrick Johnson, senior Evan Bondoc and my front-runner, redshirt freshman Scott Nelson. Regardless of who is in there, Wisconsin’s defensive backfield should be something special in 2018.
Tyler Hunt: While there are quite a few positions that could be an interesting battle, I would have to say the running back position is what that I am really looking at. Not so much the starter as that’s pretty well determined in Jonathan Taylor, but who is going to get the bulk of the touches otherwise? If there’s a good chance Taylor’s touches are monitored and limited to ensure he’s healthy for a whole season, that lies opportunity for one of the others to step in. Both Chris James and Bradrick Shaw had disappointing 2017 seasons. James never really found his rhythm in playing only nine games last year due to injury, and Shaw regressed while battling injuries along the way as well. Garrett Groshek was a bright spot in the backfield last season and could make a bigger jump this season with his downhill running and beautiful stiff arm. If you include redshirt senior Taiwan Deal in this group, you have a very strong running back core with a lot of experience, but they will have to step up and try to take some of the weight of Taylor’s shoulder when he needs that blow.
Bob Wiedenhoeft: I’m with Tyler, as I’m interested in seeing who gives Taylor a breather this season. The Doak Walker finalist was fourth in the FBS in carries last season at 299 attempts, two behind the leader. This accounts for roughly half of Wisconsin’s rushing attempts in 2017 excluding sacks and failed Hornibrook scrambles.
Taylor would not play in the next offensive series off after losing fumbles in most of those drives. If Chryst uses this strategy again with his sophomore back, that will leave lengthy and uninterrupted chunks of football games completely uninfluenced by Taylor. In 2017, those chunks saw a significant dip in production. Among Badgers with 20-plus carries last season, nobody came close to Taylor’s 6.6 yards per rush.
Bottom line, this team’s expectations, fair or not, mean that this offense needs to be the best in program history. Not just explosive, but relentless. Wisconsin should have a group of very good rushers backing up Taylor, and they would benefit greatly from one more stepping up like Taylor did last season.